In the span of eight minutes on May 19, the Tehachapi City Council recorded three votes that cleared the way for the Wal-Mart Corp. to build a 165,000-square-foot Walmart Supercenter here.
By 5-0 voice votes, the council:
• Denied the appeal of the Tehachapi Planning Commission’s 4-1 approval of the project on Jan. 31;
• Accepted the project’s Environmental Impact Report and adopted the statement of overriding consideration; and
• Upheld the Planning Commission’s approval of the project with an additional requirement that Walmart indemnify the city in case of challenges to the EIR.
Opening in 2013
“We anticipate going to bid in about a year,” said Walmart spokesperson Amelia Neufeld after the meeting.
It will take a year for the plans and permits to work their way through the city, she said, and Walmart also will be working with Caltrans on the traffic issues during that time.
She said construction will take 12 months and the store will open early in 2013.
“We will open a hiring center two to three months before the grand opening,” she said.
The May 19 continued special City Council meeting began at 6 p.m. as an audience that grew to 200 filled the bleachers at the Tehachapi High School gymnasium.
Following a review of the project by Tehachapi Community Development Director David James, City Council members Linda Vernon, Susan Wiggins, Shane Reed, Phil Smith and Mayor Ed Grimes asked for clarification of certain issues before commencing the votes at 7:01 p.m.
Pro-Walmart members of the audience, waving blue Walmart fans, cheered as the final vote came at 7:09 p.m.
Mayor Grimes adjourned the meeting at 7:10 p.m. and broadcast media from Bakersfield jockeyed for interviews with City Council members, Neufeld and Walmart opponent Henry Schaeffer of the Tehachapi First organization.
“It’s the hardest decision I’ve had to make since I have been on the City Council,” Reed said prior to the crucial third vote. “And it’s in the top 10 decisions I have made in my life.”
Reed said a “no” vote would be an emotional vote because he does not want to see the town get bigger. He said his vote was based on facts.
“If there are any problems Walmart creates, then we’ll try to fix them.”
“I’m not a Walmart fan,” said Council member and lifelong Tehachapi resident Phil Smith. “But people in my neighborhood, they’re really hurting. They want a choice. With the price of food and gas going up as the comments emphasized, who am I to tell folks in my neighborhood, in my community, ‘You don’t really need this’?”
Council member Linda Vernon, the immediate past mayor, said that as she was driving to Bakersfield that morning, she had a good view of the proposed construction site from the highway.
“I looked at the area where Walmart would go,” Vernon said. “It is very much a commercial corridor.”
Vernon said that based on the testimony and questions and answers, “I can’t see any reason this project should not be approved.”
Council member Susan Wiggins praised the audience and staff and said she had sought assurance that all the requirements of the EIR had been met.
“After listening tonight, I feel assured they have,” she said.
After the meeting, Wiggins shared that she had been touched by the turnout of supporters and their patience as they sat through long meetings on hard high school bleachers.
“What really moved me,” she said, “is the senior citizens sitting in the bleachers for the two meetings, with the message, ‘Please bring Walmart so we can eat.’”
The proposal may not have seen its last challenge.
Opponents have 30 days to file a lawsuit.
“We’re going to meet this weekend,” said opponent Schaeffer of the Tehachapi First group. “The only thing left for us is some legal action. We’re going to see if we can afford it.”
Schaeffer, the owner of Henry’s Home-4-Less building supply store, said they already had talked to “a couple of attorneys.”
Schaeffer, on behalf of Tehachapi First, paid the $1,561 fee required to appeal the Jan. 31 planning commission approval of the Walmart project. At the subsequent City Council meeting to hear the appeal, Schaeffer spoke for the allotted three minutes and was escorted out of the gymnasium by police when he would not give up the podium.
“I’m very upset they denied my appeal without listening to me,” he said after the City Council approved the project. “I still feel I have the constitutional right to be heard.”
There was no public testimony May 19, as the public comment portion of the special City Council meeting was concluded at the previous meeting on March 28. The May 19 meeting was a continuance of the March meeting.
The votes may bring to a close a long, contentious battle between pro- and anti-Walmart factions in Tehachapi that saw five public meetings to air the project, two of which drew more than 700 people, and one of which lasted four hours. Collectively more than 150 public speakers addressed the Tehachapi Planning Commission and the City Council at the meetings.